That spoof video about Newport contains the lyric, "Josie Darby's from Newport/Yes, it's strange we didn't know either/ Thankyou Wikipedia", owning up about where we all get our instant erudition from these days. In the midst of writing we can within seconds feign feats of recall that were once only available to dons and raconteurs on their second drink.
By the way, I don't mean the Nashville band, The Raconteurs, who are known in Australia as The Saboteurs due to the coincidence of a Queensland group already using the name Raconteurs. (Thank You, Wikipedia.)
By eliminating the need for a shelf of books and a hearty library habit, perhaps at some college, and a nice study and a support system that allows you to squander time rubbing the bridge of your nose as you look up the slim vol of poetry to get that quote right, Wikipedia has changed, probably, some very fundemental things about what a writer looks and even smells like.
Read an essay from before the time of the internet and you sense a very different beast at work, gnawing at his typewriter trying to make his word count. This would conventionally be a genuinely erudite soul, with a wholly different information processing system, the most important features of which are that it is large, external and complex. So it is not the sort of support structure available to most people. It is the equivalent of the difference between shelled animals and their unshelled equivalents. These prelasparian writers had to arrange their lives, loves, finances, feeding habits and those of their partners, children, priests, barmen, pets and so on, around the simple fact of their need for an exoskeleton that provided the important personal resource of education and information storage.
To read the work of the pre-internet writer, the 'old type fouled up guy' as Larkin described himself, (thank you, Wikipedia) is to summon an image of the dens those works are conceived in, the napless carpets, the radio with selotaped aerial, the gin and glasses, discarded pullovers, objects and photo's of ugly friends and of course, the ceiling-high shelves laden with dust and books.
Today, we are free of the need for that placenta-like resource but are, once we have cut the cord, perhaps more naked as a result. If someone were to question me about The Raconteurs or Philip Larkin at a function, especially a function at which not being exposed as a fraud is in some way important, I would be embarrassed by my one-dimensional knowledge. So, big question, is this a good thing or not?
One's normal response when deciding whether to back or moan about progress is to err on the side of survival. Yes I am modern and relevant and love the internet to bits. But in this case I guess it has to be a good thing. Several generations of writers have been able to moan about Tennyson not having to clear his own plate away, let alone cook, wash up and clean under the rim of whatever kind of toilet bowl 19th Century poets had (Wikipedia is inconclusive).
You don't have to be a writer to envy Seigfried Sassoon's life of leisure. Sassoon did nothing unless he happened to fancy it that morning. He normally opted for riding or writing, until war gave him something to ride around in and write about. But modern writers will feel the pain of green-eyedness a little more acutely than some as they attempt to forget their job in Pizza Express for the purposes of finding their novelist's voice.
I went to my old friend Mark Radcliffe's book launch on Saturday. (Gabriel's Angel - buy it why don't you?) The event was combined with his 50th birthday party, throwing into sharp relief the fact that I knew him before his voice broke. I know what he had to go through to get to his first novel. I remember the prefab house he lived in, the mice droppings in the frying pan in his/our first London flat, the nursing job, the other stuff (we didn't always stay in touch). He had as much chance of gathering about him the inkstands and photographs of tousle-haired dons on a Cumbrian walking holiday that provide a writer's support system as a pig has of flying when he's already busy with other, more pressing matters.
If it is a little easier today for people to take off before they run out of runway, it has to be good news for the variety and quality of writing available.